COMM-ORG Papers 2003


Investigating, Organising and Fighting

Lutz Wessels

University of Bremen


~ Introduction: From the University Back to Reality
~ Halfway: Action Research
  1. A view back into the seventies
  2. The Research Becomes Practical!
~ Irrelevant Academics: Participatory Research
  1. Participatory Research
  2. Distribution of Roles
  3. The Plan to the First Action
~ Research for Action!
  1. What to do With a Researcher?
  2. Principles and Aims
  3. Digging in the Dirt: Provision of Information
  4. Action!
~ Welcome to Reality
~ About the Author
~ Bibliography
~ Notes


What is "Research"? First of all it is not "Forschung", but rather "recherche". But why do I have to translate an English word with a French one? What is the difference between a "Forscher" and a Researcher(1)?

"Forschers" usually wear white smocks, or at least ugly bow-ties. They sit in their laboratories or offices in the university and look for new facts, in order to convert them into much-considered scientific publications.

Researchers also look for new facts. Perhaps they even wear an ugly bow-ties, but their jobs are in reality rather than at the university. They look for new facts in order to convert them as fast as possible into actions on the street.

In order to make this difference clear, in the first section I will examine "Action Research". As an advancement of this new scientific method in the driving water of the student revolt of '68, the academics capture the streets in the second section. And the fact that actually the street captures the academics and uses them for its purposes becomes clear  in the third section - a practical guide on how to win a campaign.

Why does Community Organizing have more success in the USA than in Germany? Maybe because there are more "Forschers" in Germany than Researchers.

Halfway:  Action Research

  1. A View Back to the Seventies

The student revolt of 1968 changed the society of the German Federal Republic in various ways. It is true that the students and, as a consequence, the numerous "C-Sects"(2) didn't succeed in also convincing the working class about the revolution (even if some of them went during the university-holidays "into the production", to be close to the revolutionary subjects). But at the starting point of the rebellion something started to change.

There was a search for alternatives to the standard-scientific requirements for research and a more direct link to practice. Considered to be one of the first scientific investigations of the concept of action research in Germany is the essay "Social Research as Action Research" from Fritz Hague.(3) From a Marxist point of view, Hague examined the position of the "academic workers in late capitalism in the fight against the social-structural conditions". (4)This fight should be led "at their own place together with other social groups"(5), or more specifically: The students and professors must develop new research methods at the university in order to connect these with the fights of the working class.

Research at the universities must stand in the service of social enterprises and lead to social action. (6) "It has to work with people in everyday practice in common working- and learning-conditions and communicate through it, to contribute in this common working-, learning-, and self-reflection-process to overcome class-based rule." (7) Thus, for the first time one did with the goal of changing social injustices. The "investigation objects"(8) should not only serve as statistical material, but the process of research should always develop and improve together with them by constant reflection.

  2. The Research Becomes Practical!

How are these ideas converted into practice?

At the beginning of the action research process stands "the definition of an urgent social problem" by the researcher. (9) The actual goals of the project are defined during the process, because the only place to start action is a field description. After an analysis of the social parameters of the present condition, several solutions are developed and evaluated in their natural environment. In this "exploration-phase" the first structuring of the project is made, in order to change and improve it further in the "optimisation-phase".(10)

The methods of action Research require, according to Hague, the development of "sociological imagination".(11) Innovations like using role-plays, group discussions, computers and films have their origin in these efforts and today one can't think of NOT using them in social work! The researcher plays thereby the role of a "reflecting fellow player".(12)

Important for the final result is whether the possibility of change was sufficiently taken into account during the course of the project, "which subject role he (the researcher, L.W.) grants the test subjects" and above all, what he or she contributes to the emancipation of his or her "investigation objects".(13)

Researchers now dared to take a step out onto the street. However, the fact that they only went half way is obvious, too: The starting point for research is still the university. The "searching subjects" are academics. With them, not with the "investigation objects", lies the determination of the problem, the execution of the project and also the evaluation and use of the results. The education- and research-hierarchy remains unbroken. One works and suffers, the other has the knowledge and helps.

But also different theories were developed. In Italy the "Operaism" grew in the sixties, which put research for the improvement of the situation of the workers into the hands of the workers ("worker-investigation").(14)

Irrelevant Academics:  Participatory Research

  1. Participatory Research 

The "Forschung", that in this case actually is not "Forschung", but RESEARCH (and which is therefore called that in the following)(15), is one of the columns in the concept of community organizing. Asked which role academics are to play within research, S. Alinsky himself gave an answer in 1969: "The word "academic" is a synonym for irrelevant."(16)

So let us examine the concept Participatory Research (PR) and see to what extent academics in this case are - relevant.

PR is mainly about democratisation of education, and is for the community (the "investigation objects", according to Hague) a tool for education, consciousness-shaping and mobilisation for actions. A goal is the empowerment of the community, in order to eliminate economic, cultural, racism and political problems. "PR is about revolution". (17) In order to reach that, the abstract knowledge of the (academic) researchers can be combined with the practical knowledge of the community. Above all the academic must not regard the community as a further experimental field. Usually, communities can do their research work themselves. Only if they lack resources and time should they engage a professional researcher and in any case the  research questions should always be decided by the community.(18) This person can then fill any of three roles: initiator, consultant and collaborator.

  2. Distribution of Roles

The initiators, as the name implies, initiate a campaign. They can come from the outside to the community and invite the community to a work on a common project, or be asked for assistance by the community itself. Their task is mainly to push something and therefore to bring out the community's own abilities. They "generate resistance".(19) To be able to fulfill this task, however, advanced organizer abilities are a necessary condition.

Normally the community should determine and accomplish the research project. Then, an academic can also work with the community as a consultant. In that case, the plan for a project is specified by the community, while the consultant implements it and constantly consults, informs and gets new ideas and suggestions.(20)

Finally, as a collaborator, the researcher participates with the community in the planning of the Research project. While an academic researcher can contribute theoretical, "technical" knowledge to the project, the community itself knows best its needs and what the "practice" looks like.

However, such co-operation is not easy from the outset. Often people from the community have had bad experiences with the academic world - academics are from a different class, from the class that is usually responsible for the bad conditions in the poorer neighbourhoods! (21)

In order to see which functions have to be filled out in a project, we should remember again the goals of a research project.

First of all, research is not a university research project, but only a part of community organizing! Goals of good research should be: to give the community knowledge and abilities, develop solidarity and, finally, to start actions that bring successes and strengthen self-assurance.(22) In order to achieve these goals, four functions must be filled out for the work: animator, organizer, popular educator and participatory researcher. It depends not only on the own abilities of the researcher, but also on these functions whether she or he takes on the role of an Initiator, a Consultant or a Collaborator.

What kind of work do animators perform? They are animators in the truest sense of the word - they translate problems, develop self-assurance, help to analyse the situation and to organise people.

The job of an Organiser is somewhat more difficult to fulfil. They must be able "to do everything", to research and activate processes.  They have to be "catalysts".(23) Naturally, this requires very extensive practical knowledge and experiences - and unfortunately most academics cannot offer this…

The Public Educator facilitates the learning process. Thereby, they should not play the role of a teacher, but rather discover and get out already existing knowledge, encouraging people to acquire missing knowledge by themselves.

Those who know how and where to look for the best knowledge are the participatory researchers. They plan the research process alongside the community with the goal of producing knowledge together.(24)

The absence or presence of these four functions not only shows the organising capacity of a community, but also affects the role of the researcher.

If there are neither researchers nor Animators, Organizers or Educators in the community, it is usually not yet very organised. In this case the Researcher must already bring along many abilities and work as an initiator. (25)

If a community already is well organised and needs only further research to achieve their goals and the completion of this work can perhaps even be done by them, the role of the consultant will be demanded.(26)

In other already organised communities, research is an integral component of their work. Often they are overloaded however, so they need assistance from outside. This job can be performed by a collaborator.(27)

Naturally, research is not only limited to these three cases - there are still some intermediate steps between "well organised" and "badly organised".

Finally, good researchers must also judge their own abilities before they take over a certain role. Which functions (animator, organizer, educator, researcher) are already fulfilled? Which functions can be performed by others? Which does the Researcher fulfill? If she or he is actually only comfortable in the role of researcher, he or she should only work as a consultant and take caution with badly organised communities.

If he or she has experience as an animator and educator, he or she can serve the community also as a collaborator. Likewise in this case, the community already has a certain degree of organisation.

Good organizers, finally, also can cope with the role of an initiator. They are familiar with all four functions and thus they can fulfill their task in a badly organised community.(28)

Besides these considerations, academics should also consider the following questions before their decision:

Am I good at some kinds of research, but bad in others? During the process, the requirements for the Researcher can change constantly.

Can I write well? Often the researcher is expected to write, e.g. press statements, since an academic title often still evokes more attention.

Are there time limits or deadlines for the work? In contrast to the university a missed date can have important consequences for the whole organising process!(29)

3. The Plan to the First Action

It is important for the community it is very important which parts of the research process it should control and which the researcher can take over.

The planning of a project could perhaps look like the following:

  1. Definition of the problem
  2. Planning of the research
  3. Execution
  4. Analysis of the found data
  5. Presentation of the results
  6. Their transformation into an action (30)

The definition of the problem should be determined in any case by the community! They alone know where their problems are and what could be necessary to eliminate them. Precisely, therefore, the community should also participate in the planning of the project.

Often, the execution is more effective if it is taken over by the researcher. It can however train the abilities of the community, improve their contacts and finally better serve the goal of empowerment of the people if they accomplish the project themselves.

Also, the data analysis should take place with the community. Raw data can be presented in order to interpret it together. However, it is often helpful if the first public presentation is performed by an academic - as already mentioned above, academic titles could evoke more attention in this case. Nevertheless, according to the experiences of Stoecker, many communities oppose this, to avoid the project being used as a stepping stone in an academic's own career.(31)

Finally, in order to convert the investigated into action , a good Organizer can be quite helpful. The strategy, however, should be prepared by the community! They alone know best which actions they want and which they are able to accomplish.(32)

The difference between this theory and action research, described in the first section, is obvious. Research work is not carried out by the university, but by the community, by the "research objects" themselves! In contrast, the possibilities in which academics are not only irrelevant but disturbing, are numerous. Stoecker here advises the "educated": "Just don't get in the way." (33)

But how does a well organised community now accomplish a research project?

Research For Action!

  1. What to do With a Researcher?

After we have now learned which parts researchers can play within a research project -- which roles they may play and what they should consider when doing so, we must take a small step back now in order to move forward: How does Research look specifically?

While the last section took care of the topic from an academic point of view, the following is based on experiences from the surrounding field of the community in the form of a manual for Researchers.(34)

How does one deal with a full-time researcher? First of all the initiative is taken directly by the community!

There are two groups which can be helpful in a research project: Students, who usually can be attracted easily to do research work, and professional and paid researchers, who however only should be hired if the community can not do the work themselves.(35)

If one has decided to engage a professional from outside of the community, one should directly involve him or her emotionally, infect him with his motivation. If the researcher is not rooted in the project, she or he will be too "objective", and not so ready to do everything to reach the goals of the community without hesitation.(36)

The researcher should be clear that he or she was not called to write a doctoral thesis. The community should not be hindered by too much scientific work. It should constantly discuss the results of the researcher's work and improve weak points. And if the researcher does not do a good job - it is better to look for a new one! (37)

  2. Principles and Goals

We have come across the first principle of research now several times: A community has to do its research itself as far as possible.

The work itself can be explained quickly: it concerns looking for information, interpreting it and converting it into action.(38)

Thereby, a project does not have to be planned completely from the beginning to a possible end. Quite the contrary: one plans only for the first step.(39) The next steps are always based on the results of the first. To plan them in advance would be pure speculation. This way it is ensured that during the whole project one can deal with new problems flexibly and fast.

When is the planning for the first step terminated? When the spokespeople of the community feel prepared for the first meeting and have enough information to put the opponent off balance and counter the opponent's lies.(40) The rest is a process; how it continues is decided again from stage to stage.

There are two dangers in the choice of the correct time: striking blindly without thorough preparation and the opposite: hesitating too long and looking endlessly for more information.(41)

The search for information does not proceed "objectively". The Researcher searches and interprets only the data that supports the position of the community, weakens its opponent and supplies the community with necessary knowledge. (42)

  3. Digging in the Dirt:  Provision of Information 

How does one get the necessary data now? There are many sources of information.

Perhaps someone has already researched this topic before? Universities and libraries can inform on existing data.

Likewise, one's own opponent is often a welcomed information supplier; in business reports, shareholder information, etc. important numbers, investment goals, profits and so on can be found. Federal Agencies, for example the trade registers, contain further documents that can be examined. In the source, in the office of the opponent, there are employees who love to chat a little and answer questions on research objects, who like to talk with students that have hidden a few crucial questions in unimportant questionnaires.

Worthwhile also are comparisons with other communities: are communities treated differently? Have there been changes in the last ten years?(43)

If one does not yet exactly know what to search for, there are some key questions that can lead to the correct information. All possible information is collected and then filtered: in which club or association does the opponent operate? In which church? Who are their business partners, - opponents and banks? Where does he or she live? Are there already newspaper articles in archives about him or her? Does he or she have dissatisfied employees or any that have been recently dismissed who might willingly reveal insider-information?(44)

If one already knows what to search for , one should proceed to produce an exact questionnaire. A goal of the research should always be to exert pressure on those who make the decisions and to accelerate the process. Thus, the questions that one should place are above all: Who decides, who has power, and what do their schedules look like? (45)

  4. Action!

What does the Researcher do now with the obtained information?

It is important that the people can identify themselves with the case. The construction of the fate of individuals affects people more than larger units like a company, a neighbourhood and the like. With the presentation of a "starting case" it must be made clear that the others suffer precisely the same - usually one case is sufficient to set forth a process. This starting case should be worked out exactly with those concerned. They must be prepared for all eventualities so that nothing goes "coincidentally" wrong just at the beginning of a campaign. At a first public meeting for the presentation of this starting case the press can be invited right away (see below).(46)

How is a presentation accomplished as effectively as possible? By dramatising in a clear and exciting way. Visual impressions are memorised faster and longer than acoustical. By using statistics, diagrams, and pictures, facts become more descriptive. Because humans often act from feeling rather than from logic, the emotions of the public should be addressed - impressive photos, exaggerated small theatre inserts, everything that can cause indignation, solidarity, rage. (47)

The presenters and spokespeople of the meeting must be prepared so well that nothing is left to coincidence. They must know all the important facts and react accordingly to each situation and each argument. The researcher does not only supply the public with the necessary data, but also with their interpretations, how they can be most useful for the community - how are they presented most understandably? How can their own experiences be addressed by the submitted information?(48)

Another important element for spreading the obtained information is the press. Reporters like to write their articles around a personal fate. A personal contact with the concerned can be offered to them, so that they have the feeling they themselves are investigating. Naturally, these contact persons must be prepared intensively, so that no unpleasant surprises arise! In order to support this "personal" and "objective" search, diagrams and statistics can be submitted. If good contacts exist with certain journalists, one can offer them the exclusive rights on the action. This way an engaged reporting is guaranteed!(49)

An information meeting with the community should finally culminate in a call to an action that is already pre-planned. Humans do not only go to meetings to be informed, but to act! (50)

Welcome to Reality

The concept of Research in Community Organizing gets the research finally where it is necessary: the job, the neighbourhood, the street. The process of investigating facts and data is put into action. It should not be the researcher in the ivory tower of the university who thinks about the cruelty of certain social conditions, collects statistical and empirical and sociological data, in order to then summarise it in the company of a bottle of good red wine, present it in scientific circles, and write much-considered articles. Research goes the opposite, more logical way. A community has a specific problem that it wants to solve. To organise their fight, they need certain information that they provide themselves or have provided by a professional researcher. This information is evaluated then immediately and used for the campaign.

So facts do not become dusty in binders in disordered offices, in lead deserts of scientific newspapers that never reach the "target group" anyway, or in university libraries, for which you have to procure a pass if you live outside the academic world. Knowledge is not produced for knowledge's sake, but to convert this knowledge into action. For what else should it be useful?

Those who were before still "research objects" and "target groups" become in the concept of Community Organizing and Research again what they are: Experts for the problems that concern them, those who know best what and how they want to change and then tackle their project in a self-organised manner.

And if you need an academic for that, look for one and tell him or her what to do.

About the Author

Lutz Wessels is a Social Worker who has studied Community Organization with Peter Szynka in Bremen, Germany. At present he lives in Madrid, Spain, works as German-teacher and is a trade-unionist in the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. The paper was  written in Bremen/ Germany for the University of Bremen, Department of Social Work, course on “Community Organizing” (Peter Szynka), 11-610, winter 00/01 and translated in Madrid/ Spain. Many thanks to my professor Peter Szynka - a researcher, not a Forscher.


"Who, me a Researcher? Yes, You!", 1979, by Shel Trapp, National Training and Information Center, Chicago, Illinois

"Are Academics irrelevant", 1997, Randy Stoecker, University of Toledo, USA, presented at the American Sociological Annual meeting 1997

"Sozialforschung als Aktionsforschung", Fritz Hague, Juventa Verlag 1972, from the reader "Aktionsforschung", University of Bremen, Department of Social Work

"Grundlagen der Praxisforschung" , Heinz Moser, Lambertus Verlag 1995


1. The German translation of the word "researcher" is "Forscher". However, those two words mean two slightly different things, which can Be further cleared up when speaking about bow-ties and smocks. A more exact translation of the word "research" would be the French "recherche", which is also common in German. So far the disorientation caused by the use of three different languages in the text.

2. Another very German expression: after 1968, a part of the students' movement in Germany split into dozens of "Communist Parties" (of some 20 militants each), that were called "Communists Sects", "K-Sekten"

3. In: Hague, Krueger, Schwaerzel, Wildt, Aktionsforschung, Forschungsstrategien, Forschungsfelder and Forschungsplaene, Munich, Juventa publishing house 1972

4. ebd, S.23, 28

5. ebd, P. 28

6. ebd, P. 39

7. ebd, P. 42

8. according to Hague, P. 55

9. ebd, S.47

10. ebd, S 47-49

11. ebd, P. 53

12. ebd, P. 54

13. ebd, P. 54/55

14. Among the most important theoreticians of this movement rank Sergio Bologna and Antonio Negri. Also in Germany an operaistic theory was developed, among others by Karl-Heinz Roth in the seventies. See also e.g. Frombeloff (Hg), "...und es begann die Zeit der Autonomie ("… and it began the time of autonomy"), Verlag Libertäre Assoziation, Hamburg, 1991-93

15. the subtleties of language once again force me to use this English German mixture

16. Randy Stoecker, "Are Academics Irrelevant?", University OF Toledo/USA, 1977

17. ebd, S.2/3

18. ebd, P. 3/4

19. ebd, P. 4

20. ebd, P. 4

21. ebd, P. 5

22. > ebd, P. 5

23. ebd, P. 6

24. ebd, P. 7

25. ebd, P. 7

26. ebd, P. 8

27. Stoecker here , on page 8, gives an example of a "Policy Research Action Group", which accomplishes "over a dozen research projects the year"

28. ebd, P. 8

29. ebd, P. 8

30. ebd, P. 9

31. a good example is the German Federal Minister of the Interior Otto Schilly, who was one of the defenders of the "RAF" (Rote Armee Fraktion, Red Army Fraction) -- terrorists Ulrike Meinhoff and Andreas Baader in the seventies in the trails of Stammheim. Later, with this fame, he started as a carrier in the Green Party, changing afterwards to the Social-Democratic party  to get a well-paying job in the government

32. ebd, P. 10

33. ebd, P. 10

34. "Who, me a researcher? Yes, you!" , Shel Trapp, a publication of the national training and information center of Chicago, 1979

35. ebd, P. 23, 24

36. ebd, P. 24

37. ebd, P. 26

38. ebd, P. 1

39. ebd, S.1

40. ebd, P. 2

41. ebd, P. 1

42. ebd, P. 3

43. ebd, P. 6-9

44. ebd, P. 9-12

45. ebd. P. 13. 14

46. ebd, 15, 16

47. ebd, P. 16-18

48. ebd, P. 18, 19

49. ebd, P. 19-21

50. ebd, P. 22:"you hold information meetings to organize on attack."